Defining Wine Culture – Sarah Heller on why young Chinese consumers are in charge

In the UK, the average bottle of wine sells for just over £5; in China, consumers turn their nose up at anything less than £20. Why?

Words by Sarah Heller MW

Sarah Heller illustration in color
Illustration by Stuart Patience

Having spent the past decade in the whirlwind that is the Greater Chinese wine market, I’ve dedicated much of that time to attempting to understand its most drooled-over and yet elusive denizens: young Chinese consumers.

In my part of the world, a substantial cohort of young Chinese consumers is, despite comparatively low annual income, defining wine culture by treating it as part of the luxury lifestyle to which they aspire. Contrast that to the well-documented impact of western millennials on the wine market. Or should I say non-impact. Given their relative lack of cash and apparently lukewarm interest in the subject, young westerners’ lasting impact on the global wine scene, particularly fine wine, is questionable.

In China, the idea that a bottle of wine costs a decent chunk of money is ingrained

While the average price for a bottle of wine in the UK is still only just north of £5, for example, in China you’ll encounter serious scepticism that anything below 200RMB (£22) would be worth drinking; a bottle worthy of taking to a dinner party might cost closer to £80.

When I was developing a wine brand with some partners, our Chinese distributors strongly advised against “tainting our image” with anything below £25. There are a few reasons for this attitude, which I will admit is not universal (witness the success of web influencers like Lady Penguin, aka Karla Wang, who trades in wines as inexpensive as £3 a bottle). One reason is that the relatively high taxes on wine (at least in mainland China) compounded by punitive retail mark-ups often leave a bottle of Yellow Tail at 7-Eleven costing £20 or more. So the idea that a bottle of wine costs a decent chunk of money is ingrained.

Young people pouring wine for each other
Young Chinese consumers are "defining wine culture by treating it as part of the luxury lifestyle to which they aspire"

Another is that, unlike in traditional wine-producing countries, there is no established habit of daily wine consumption, so wine is generally viewed as a luxury rather than a staple. Some members of the wine trade who were pleasantly surprised by the finding in my Master of Wine thesis that young Chinese consumers favoured a per-bottle price of around £20 – and the youngest were more likely to favour higher prices – were deflated when they realised that many of them only indulge once or twice a quarter.

These patterns play out at all levels of consumption. Whereas in the US or UK, a Wednesday-night gathering of wine lovers might feature a nice Chablis or Châteauneuf-du-Pâpe, the equivalent gathering in China could involve 1990s Solaia, Ornellaia or Tignanello, some very fine Pomerol, and 1980s Madeira for good measure. But such bacchanalia is likely to be followed by several days of abstention.

Many of my wine colleagues shake their heads at such behaviour. They insist we must find a way to integrate wine into Chinese consumers’ everyday lives – or they’re disdainful of China’s “show-off culture.” I’m less sure. Attempts at popularising wine are usually flawed (if I hear one more person claim that wine is just as enjoyable out of a plastic cup, I will probably upend it on them), and I’m not sure I agree with the premise. Trying to persuade people who see wine as luxurious that it’s merely a beverage seems fundamentally wrong-headed.

The Merchants Wine Bar in Beijing
Commentators in Beijing describe a move away from formal drinking

In any case, there are signs that things are changing. Young Chinese consumers at both extremes of the market are becoming increasingly adventurous. Karla Wang notes that as wine purchasing has slowed because of the pandemic, the big brands are having a more challenging time as shoppers look for differentiated products. Isabella Gao, proprietor of high-end wine bars The Merchants and M Natural in Beijing, describes a move away from formal drinking and more curiosity about categories like natural wine. She says millennials who have returned from studying or living abroad will expect, as a matter of course, to order wine at a restaurant, and they’re on the lookout for new styles and regions.

It seems the pandemic has shifted the situation from one where the most renowned brands are valued solely for their price tags, to one that’s more diverse and down to earth. I still think pushing all the way down to the realm of indifferent “everyday wines” would be a shame, though. Even I don’t really believe people should be drinking every day – neither human nor planetary health support it. Instead I hope we can all consider emulating the young consumers who are building a healthy wine culture: one where wine is viewed as a treasure to be consumed infrequently but thoughtfully.